Relationships Are Revenue

I like to say that “relationships are revenue.” When I was working at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters in Atlanta, I tried to remember this whenever someone dropped by our roastery unannounced looking to buy some coffee. We didn’t sell coffee at the roastery, we were basically a manufacturing facility and warehouse, but if you were nearby and told your “smart” phone you wanted coffee, it would send you to our roastery.

My approach when someone walked through the door expecting to buy coffee was to welcome them, explain that we didn’t sell coffee but their phone didn’t know that, and to offer them a tour. In six and a half years I greeted dozens of people who walked into the roastery looking to buy a cup of coffee or a bag of beans and not one of them ever turned me down when I offered to give them a tour.

When you work in coffee, especially when you work around roasting, it is easy to forget that most people still believe coffee is created by magic, and when you offer to let them see the magic they get excited. I didn’t give them the full blown tour/lecture/tasting we provided for planned visits or potential customers. I gave them the “drop-in” tour, a cup of coffee, a five-minute swing around the roastery and often, though not always, a small bag of coffee.

While it is true that some of these visits led to business relationships of one sort or another, the vast majority did not, or they did and I never learned of it. Still, in my mind I tried to treat everyone that visited not just as a valued customer, but as a valued customer who was my personal guest. When I say “relationships are revenue” I don’t mean that relationships are a part of making money, though that is certainly true. What I mean is that positive relationships, in and of themselves, contain value, even if they are short and sweet. Relationships are one of the rewards of doing business. Not everyone thinks this way but fortunately, almost everywhere I have ever worked, people thought this way, even Disneyland in its way.

I began thinking like this long ago when I sold men’s shoes for the Nordstrom family. My boss told me that people were not buying shoes from me, they were buying how it felt to buy shoes from me. This is a common sales refrain but I didn’t know that at the time. I took to it like it was secret knowledge and decided I would create a relationship with every customer, even if it was a relationship that lasted only 15 minutes. This meant I didn’t sell as many shoes on any given day as other sales people because I gave the customer my full attention, I listened closely and made their pace my pace, and if they seemed open to receiving it, I tried to give them something they didn’t have when they sat down, other than the shoes, a little information about something like shoe care and repair, shoe making, the history of shoes, proper fit. The people who sold the most shoes “turned ‘em and burned ‘em.” They made a lot of money but they had few repeat customers.  I had a lot of repeat customers, people who would ask for me or call ahead to see when they could come by and see me. I was never a top salesperson but I had less income volatility than the “top dogs” because I had a steady stream of regular customers and when floor traffic was slow I could call some of my customers and let them know what was new on the floor.

We were the number one men’s shoe department in the company, full of top performers. I once asked my boss if he ever thought of asking me to transfer to another store or department so he could bring in another top dog (we called each other “shoe dogs” because we spent our day fetching shoes).

I will never forget his answer. “No way, because you are what people think of when they think of Nordstrom.” He meant I was the PR version of Nordstrom and I took it as a compliment.

When I worked at the Specialty Coffee Association of America I used to say that part of my job was to make people feel good about being a member of the association. I wasn’t always successful, but when a member walked away from a conversation with me or out of a committee meeting I wanted them to feel good about paying their membership dues, paying for a booth on our exhibition floor, sponsoring an event, or volunteering their time. Whatever it was, I wanted them to feel like they made a good decision and the only tool I ever had in my tool box beyond honoring commitments was to value the relationships.

These things are not stunning revelations and many great business and management writers have been saying this since long before I carried a shoe horn in my back pocket. Nevertheless, I need reminding now and then. I could do worse than having the way I treat people thought of as synonymous with the organization I represent.  The organization could do a lot worse too.